DURRUTI — LETTER FROM PRISON (El Puerto de Santa María, Cadiz) 1933 Agustín Guillamón (Translated by Paul Sharkey)

durruti_ascaso_prison_cadixOn Sunday 2 April 1933, Durruti, Ascaso and ‘Combina’ were arrested leaving the Andalusian-Extremaduran Regional Congress in Seville charged with promulgating the ‘criminal’ ideas discussed during the closing session.” [1] This was blatant ‘thought crime’ and flew in face of the Second Republic’s much vaunted right to freedom of expression. On Sunday 9 April, the representative leaders from Estat Catalá and the ERC (Republican Left of Catalonia) gathered in Barcelona to pay tribute to the fascist Josep Dencás (the Minister of Health at the time); they believed the Seville arrests had decapitated the FAI and that that organisation could now be considered a spent force. Such declarations amounted to wishful thinking, commonplace among those directing the bourgeois machinery of repression when they set out to resolve complicated and deep-seated social issues and concomitant bitter and run-of-the-mill terrorist and public order implications by reducing the issues to a few individual leaders and scapegoats. Josep Dencás was one of the founders, prime movers – along with the Badía brothers – and sponsors of the fascistic, pro-independence escamots of the JEREC (Republican Left Youth-Estat Catalá).

After a few days in Seville prison, Buenaventura Durruti, Francisco Ascaso and Vicente Pérez ‘Combina’[2] were transferred to the Puerta de Santa María prison (Cadiz). While in Seville prison Durruti wrote to his family commenting that the homeland was “an amalgamation of properties” and distinguising between imperialist war and social warfare, the latter being synonymous with class struggle. Most of the letter was intended for his brother, Pedro, in an attempt to help him deepen his understanding of war; in Buenaventura’s view Pedro had mishandled the issue in recent press article.

A few points in the letter flag up Durruti’s life experiences:

  1. His year-long stay in Paris during the Great War.
  2. His dealings with Pío Baroja who visited him in prison, eager, perhaps to make the acquaintance of — and have direct contact with — a man of action like Durruti.
  3. The discriminatory and vexatious attitude of the republican authorities towards anarchist militants, this being an impediment to even the slightest cooperation or entente between the anarcho-syndicalist movement and the authorities of the Second Republic.

There follows a full translation of that letter:

Puerto de Santa María, 3 June 1933 [3]

Dear Mother and brothers

I received your letter dated the 1st in which you tell me that you received the passes and ask me what you should now do with them.

Hold on to them until I get out. Once [I am] back in Barcelona you can forward them to me. The fact is I am afraid I may not be able to use them, given that you have had them for two months now and there is only one month left before they expire; a month that I must spend here as it looks clear to me that the Government is inclined to make me spend the summer in the shadows here.

A few days ago I reckoned I would get out, but the Madrid comrades wrote me to say that Quiroga [4] has given orders that we are not to be freed.

But as it stands, with no one paying any heed, the judge of this small village turned up with a telegram from the examining magistrate looking into the matter of the rally winding up the Congress; a matter in relation to which we should have been released on a personal surety of a thousand pesetas; and in the telegram from Seville we learn that the trial is to be revisited, that they are doing away with release on bail, that we remain at the disposal of the judge in Seville and have been charged without bail.

I did ask the judge what was behind this decision relating to an unimportant trial like this one; he could not answer me, simply informing me that I was being detained without bail. This is a case that is being heard for the first time; all trials relating to breach of the press laws or for defamation are in line for automatic bail. I cannot fathom what they are playing at. We have written to the Seville comrades to get them to clarify this matter; once we have their response we will have a handle on their plans for us.

For the moment I can tell you this: the prison we are in ghastly, on the way in but not on the way out; it is worse than Dante’s inferno. We are completely isolated. It is clear that the Government is out to ensure that nobody can see us. But we mean to protest at the exceptional measure being deployed against us. All the prisoners in Spain are free to speak with family and friends, whereas we political prisoners are forbidden to communicate with anybody; and they criticize us for attacking the republican regime. What would they have us say after the horrors they have done to us.

When Pío Baroja [5] came to see us in Seville prison, he said to me: it is awful, what they are doing to you; and when I asked him: Señor Pío, what do you reckon our stance should be in the face of this barbarism? He had no answer for us. Later I read in one of his articles in Ahora the answer that he dared not offer us through the bars.[6] Anyway, enough talk about all that, because it puts me in a bad mood.

Old Germinal [7], who had been released, has been jailed again and endures the same fate as Combina and me; charged in connection with that rally, without bail.

A few days back Périco sent me La Mañana, and I saw and read the article he wrote, entitled “Message from the English Children”. The article is really good, but Périco doesn’t have a good understanding of war; don’t be angry on that account, pal. You will recall that shortly before we were deported we held a big anti-war rally in Barcelona, with the participation of a great French pacifist, the ‘peace principle’ as they call him in Paris. Pioch [8] is the name of that international figure. He did a lot for us during our detention in Paris; he made a great speech and gave a masterly exposition on war crimes. Mimi [9] jotted it all down in shorthand. I was the next speaker up after Pioch; after hailing him and the Spanish public I dealt with two facets of war – imperialist war and social war. Intending no offence to Pioch, I asked him why the pacifists waited for the threat of war to arrive before facing up to the attendant horrors of war. It took the inspiration of such crimes being carried out before they could write articles for the newspapers and make courtroom speeches; as if the crimes perpetrated in ’14-’18 were the only crimes ever committed by capitalism. Périco, I have seen many a human being mutilated in that horrific war; as you know, I spent a year living in Paris during the war. And, well, chum, I had no need to wait for that awful war before making a stand against all crime. Whilst the war has disabled men by the thousands, the social war has also disabled thousands of workers. What is the difference between a man who loses an arm defending the homeland and one that loses it while at work? What is the homeland? Academia says it is the soil where you were born. But what rights does the homeland confer on the worker? The right to work when he can find somebody willing to exploit him. Meaning that the homeland is an amalgamation of properties, and the moment anyone from another country has designs on all or part of those properties, the property-owners take refuge behind laws that they themselves made; and they compel us to perish, armed, upon the field of honour, defending sacred property. What is social war? It is the strife between two social classes. There is, first, the class or proprietors who, in order to make the maximum amount of profits, need only ensure that their workers can and do lose some of the limbs to the machinery; the goal being to make money. The owners can see that the other class poses a threat to their assets and they look to the laws of their own making and murder those who refuse to defer to sacred property. This struggle also leaves many people disabled, much more than the imperialist wars. How are we going to avert war? There is only one way, Périco. By advising the young to manufacture no more of the arms they are going to use to kill one another and to champion the rights of the person. Let him who has property defend it himself.

Périco, I just know that you’ll tell me that that is all well and good, but that already we have war knocking at the door and that it has to be averted, and I agree; war must be averted. Only the organized workers have it in them to prevent the slaughter that is on the horizon. When Herriot [10] returned to Paris from Spain he made some interesting remarks in the French press. Spain, said Herriot, is an interesting country that will have to be reckoned with; for when the young republicans have finished consolidating the Republic, the country will be a great asset when it comes to ensuring peace.

Brother, we must not forget that when these men talk of peace, they mean war and when they talk about consolidating the Republic, they mean doing away with the organization that, come war, might bring the nation’s industrial efforts to a standstill. Herriot did not dare tell me publicly that in Spain mobilisation would not be a possibility as long as the Confederation was still around.

Just as war has to be averted, so we must prepare lest it come. But if it becomes inescapable we have to devise solutions to ensure that its supporters fail. Just as an individual sees to it in the autumn that he has an overcoat to protect him against the winter cold, so we need to organize: if war should come, let us know how to bring the nation’s industry to a halt; this being a mighty weapon in aborting the machiavellian schemes of an unscrupulous class which, in order to cling on to its privileges, is capable of murdering half of humanity.

Périco, you should keep up your writing; I got much pleasure from your two articles; what you need to do is read; if you need details as to documentation about war, I will send you some; you may know that in Paris there is a committee of learned men who write a lot of up-to-the-minute stuff about war.

As you read French, these are going to be of great use to you; in Barcelona I have a few newspapers; if you need them, write to Mimi and get her to send them to you and, should you feel the need, ask her to put you in touch with that group and take out a subscription to the papers; they cost a peseta a week — you will find those newspaper very useful. If I should get out soon we would talk about all this and I would let you have a list of French reviews that are literary and scientific gems.

Steel yourself, Périco, and press on; courage will overcome without rabble-rousing.

Mimi has written me that her mother was setting off for Paris; the woman [11] is depressed because she is all alone and she has had to leave little one [12] to be looked after.

Rosa,[13] if you have it, send me the letter I signed, the one you read in the press, as I have not read it.

Give my best to my friends and tell Manolín [14] to write to me.

Most affectionately, your loving Pepe. [15]” (Signed: Pepe)

Durruti, Diez, Ascaso, Combina and Lorda posed for a snapshot behind bars in Puerto Santa María prison in 1933, a photo was very widely circulated at the time and was forwarded by Durruti to his family as well as to his comrades-in-struggle together with two fantastic notes. The first read: “There will be no peace on earth as long as there are prisons. Let idealists not forget that it is up to them to tear them down.” The second comment reads: “The only solution the republicans could come up with is to jail those who think along different lines from them.

On 13 September 1933, Durruti, Ascaso and Combina and other comrades were transferred to Seville, to be tried for vagrancy, something that profoundly outraged them, for throughout their lives they had always supported themselves by the fruits of their labour. So they began a hunger strike. In the end, Combina and Durruti were released on 7 October 1933, returning to Barcelona on the 10th. Francisco Ascaso and another three comrades (Diez, Valiente and Paniza), however, were held until 3 November, facing fresh charges of “disobedience” for having declined to sign the finding pronouncing them vagrants.

On 22 October 1933, eight thousand uniformed members of the JEREC’s escamots paraded, military-style, through Montjuich, aping the Nazis. Dressed in green military shirts, dark velvet trousers, Sam Brown belts and boots they cheered speeches delivered by Miguel Badía, Josep Dencás (whom Soli described as a laughable would-be Hitler) and President Maciá who was manipulated and ambitious in equal measure.

Such a parade triggered a shrill debate in the Catalan parliament the following day; the bulk of the parliament rejected such parades, albeit that this was lip service and an entirely passive stance.

On 24 October a gang of escamots brandishing handguns burst into the printshop where the weekly El Be Negre was being produced, resulting in some vandalism in the course of which they destroyed 5-6,000 copies of the edition on the presses. No arrests were made and the copy-writer who had offended some of the ERC and Estat Catalá leaders prudently fled to a faraway country; the owner of the printshop billed the broken fittings and damage to the machines to the official in charge of the raid .. none other than Jaume Aiguader junior (son of the mayor of Barcelona and a bigwig in the ERC) who led the 15-strong gang that raided the printshop together with his uncle, Artemi Aiguader..

Soli issued a warning that if the escamots were to make them a target, their approach to defending themselves would be a far cry from the passivity displayed by El Be Negre.

The ensuing months saw the fascistic escamot movement strike-breaking and disrupting the rallies of rival parties while Badía and Dencás connived with them, using government resources and the Public Order Department.

Meanwhile, Durruti, Ascaso and Combina travelled across Spain addressing countless rallies as part of the CNT’s abstentionist campaign. The social war proceeded on its way.

Agustín Guillamón (from the French translation made by CRAS, Toulouse)

Note

  1. La Vanguardia, 5 April 1933
  2. Vicente Pérez Viche aka ‘Combina’, born in Barcelona on 28 June 1900. A French polisher by trade, he was exiled in France during the Primo de Rivera dictatorship. In 1926 he walked out of the Marseilles Congress with García Oliver when it rejected the case for collaboration with politicians. He took part in many congresses, talks and rallies throughout Spain. Together with Durruti and García Oliver he was involved in the January 1932 protest movement that began in Sallent and culminated in the Upper Llobregat uprising. Arrested in Seville on 2 April 1933 following his closing address to the Andalusian regional congress, he was detained in the Puerto Santa María prison until October. On 16 November 1933 he took part in the FAI rally held in the Montjuic Fine Arts Palace with Francisco Ascaso, Domingo Germinal, Alejandro Gilabert, Dolores Iturbe, Sébastien Faure and Buenaventura Durruti. In the years that followed he was billed alongside the CNT’s most outstanding public speakers at anarcho-syndicalist rallies. He attended the May 1936 congress. During the civil war he was one of nine CNT city councillors in Barcelona and served as president of the CNT’s Barcelona Transport Union. He also attended the ‘Friends of Durruti’ rally held in the Poliorama Theatre. In August 1938 he was appointed secretary of the CNT’s National Transport Federation. Following the fascist victory he left for exile in Venezuela before moving on to Mexico.
  3. The date caption added by ‘Combina’ – 3-6-1926 – is incorrect..
  4. Santiago Casares Quiroga (1884-1950) was a lawyer and republican politician who held a variety of portfolios under the Second Republic. In June 1933, the date of Durruti’s letter, he was minister of the Interior, a post he held during the two years of socialist-republican coalition (1931-1933). A personal friend of Azaña, and when the latter became president of the Republic, Casares Quiroga was appointed prime minister and minister of War (May 1936), a post he held until 18 July 1936, at which point he resigned, overwhelmed by the army coup that he had no idea how to handle.
  5. Durruti was flabbergasted by Baroja’s description of him in El Cabo de las tormentas.
  6. I have not been able to consult this Baroja piece.
  7. Domingo Miguel González (1880-1936), better known by his pseudonym Domingo Germinal, or simply Germinal, spent his youth in Vizcaya. Sometime around 1905 he joined the merchant navy and spent some time in Cuba and Mexico in the 1920s, before returning to Spain in 1929. From 1929 to 1930 he lived in Blanes and in Barcelona, and contributed to the journal La Revista Blanca. On 15 September 1930 he took part in a rally in Barcelona’s Bellas Artes Palace support of prisoners, demanding that the state grant an amnesty to the prisoners, politicals and socials alike. On 16 October the state slapped a ban on the talk he was due to deliver at the Apolo Theatre in Villanueva y Geltrú. In the 1930s he addressed rallies in pretty much every part of the country. An outstanding public speaker, he spoke several languages and drew large crowds. Arrested in Seville on 2 April 1933, he was jailed until that October in the Puerto Santa María. On 5 November 1933 he took part in a big CNT-FAI rally in the Monumental bullring in Barcelona against the upcoming elections. Others involved in that rally were Josep Corbella, Francesc Isgleas, Valeriano Orobón Fernández, Benito Pabón and Buenaventura Durruti. On the 16th he took part in a FAI rally at the Bellas Artes Palace; it included Francisco Ascaso, Vicente Pérez Viche (‘Combina’), Alejandro Gilabert, Dolores Iturbe, Sébastien Faure and Durruti. On the run from a republican crackdown, he went into hiding in various locations around Valencia. Later, in search of a better climate for health reasons, he settled in Palma de Mallorca (and, from time to time, Ibiza) where he published the newspaper Cultura Obrera from 1935 to 1936. He died in Elche in March 1936.
  8. Périco – or Pedro –was Durruti’s brother Marciano Pedro Durruti Domingo (or Dumange) (1911-1937). After a flirtation with anarchism, he joined the Falange in 1936 and wound up rubbing shoulders with [Falange founder] José Antonio Primo de Rivera, their paths having crossed in the Model Prison in Madrid; this facilitated his entry into the Falange. He died nine months after his brother, Buenaventura. He was shot by members of his own camp in a little village in Leon on 22 August 1937, having been convicted by a drumhead court martial after a shambolic trial.
  9. Georges Pioch (1873-1953) was a journalist and very prominent active French pacifist. At the end of 1930 he launched and headed the International League of Fighters for Peace: Romain Rolland was to be its honorary president and Victor Méric its general secretary. Its honorary directors included Albert Einstein, Stefan Zweig, Upton Sinclair, Paul Langevin, Georges Duhamel, Charles Vidrac and Jules Romains. Pioch resigned in 1937, convinced that the Moscow Trials were not getting the emphatic and effective denunciation that they deserved. Along with Jean Giono, Victor Margueritte, Marcel Martinet and Simone Weil, he signed a petition insisting upon non-intervention in Spanish affairs and another one calling for mediation between the warring sides. He retired from all public activity in 1943 and died in Nice on 21 March 1953.
  10. Mimi being Durruti’s partner, Émilienne Morin (1901-1991)
  11. Edouard Herriot (1872-1957), French politician and writer who belonged to the Parti Radical Republicain, was a towering figure in the Third and Fourth Republics. He was educated at the École Normale Supérieure and became a teacher in Nantes: he moved to Lyon in 1902, becoming city mayor from 1905 to 1925, throughout the Second World War and up until he died. From 1910 onwards he eased up on his municipal activities to pursue his national ambitions and eventually served in nine ministerial cabinets and was appointed prime minister three times. He served successively as Transport and Public Works minister (1916-1917), Education minister (1926-1928), Prime Minister and Foreign Relations minister (1924-1925, in July 1925 and June-December 1932), minister of State from 1934 to 1936 and in 1946 was appointed to the Académie Française and made speaker of the National Assembly (1947-1954).
  12. Émilienne Morin.
  13. Colette Durruti, born in December 1931, the only child of Émilienne and Buenaventura Durruti.
  14. Rosa Durruti, his sister.
  15. Manuel Durruti, Buenaventura’s brother, sympathetic to the socialists. During the October 1934 revolution, he was killed by a shot fired close to the San Marcos bridge in León.
  16. In correspondence with his family, Durruti signed himself Pepe…. Remember that his forenames were José Buenaventura, Pepe being short for José.